Rediscovered: More on Joe Memoli

Who would have thought a casual mention made when I was working up an article on the boxer-poet Floyd Salas would lead to more about Joe Memoli on These Mean Streets — and now, years later, to even more.

Just got in the following memoirs from Larry Belling. Per norm with this sort of thing (or the net in general, I guess), I don’t know if the following is some of the truth, the whole truth — or something else entirely. There’s some autobiographical sprawl, but it’s heavy enough on mentions of Joe Memoli to pique interest. (I’m thinking, maybe Floyd ought to have taken Memoli up on the proposal to write his biography.)

“My dad fixed Joe Memoli’s radio and TV sets,” Larry said by way of preface, “and he took great interest in me and my work in the theatre. This is from my diary”:

One Saturday, when my father Les was in the back visiting the bathroom, (sitting on the throne, he called it), a large black car pulled up in front of the shop and a man got out. He was dressed in a black suit with a black shirt and a white tie. He wore a black fedora with a green feather in it. His eyes were dark holes and he had no upper lip. Having just seen Edward G. Robinson in “Public Enemy” I knew immediately that this guy must be some kind of gangster, and it was thrilling.

He opened the trunk of his car and took out a large table top model Zenith radio. I rushed out to help him and held open the door to the shop. “Thanks, kid,” he said plopping the radio on Les’s workbench. Les came out of the bathroom. “Oh, hello Joe, what seems to be the trouble.”

“It just doesn’t work,” said Joe Memoli, who I would learn was an Oakland restaurateur with an Italian joint downtown, and close relatives in the New York families.

Les plugged the radio in an electricity socket. “It smells funny,” he said, “but it’s not an electrical smell. Let’s open her up.” He fiddled with his screwdriver and loosened the back panel. “Whew! What a smell!” he exclaimed. As the back panel came off, a dead rat fell to the floor.

I can hear Joe’s whoop of laughter to this day. “No wonder the damned thing didn’t work,” he exclaimed. “Fix it up, Les and come to dinner at Memoli’s — everything on the house.” He flipped me a quarter and was gone.

Memoli’s was a typical spaghetti-and-meatballs-looking joint in downtown Oakland on Broadway at Eighth Street opposite the Simon Hardware store. The tablecloths were checkered red and white, a green, white and red Italian flag hung limply outside, and delicious smells of meatballs and spaghetti sauce wafted down the street.

Specialties of the house were veal and eggplant parmigiana, spaghetti with various sauces, lasagna, baked ziti, meatballs in red sauce, and Italian sausages. These were taste thrills we didn’t get at home and I was instantly hooked. I took an interest in how the dishes were prepared and Joe took a liking to me. The feeling was mutual. He showed me how he half cooked spaghetti so that he could serve it quickly al dente after it was ordered, unlike most joints that kept it on the boil. He let me grate the fresh parmesan — no pre-grated stuff for Joe.

On the walls were framed pictures including one in an impressive prime position — Joe with Frank Sinatra! Wow. Also Joe with some nasty looking wide-shouldered men; Joe with some nasty looking Italian politicians; Joe in a big chef’s hat with Dean Martin and some other nasty looking men; and Joe with a few nasty looking fat opera singers I didn’t recognize. The music of choice was Italian opera — Verdi, Puccini, Rossini. 

The Belling family went to Memoli’s infrequently — maybe once a year, but every time we did he insisted the food was free and he made me feel as if I were his special friend and never failed to give me a shot of sweet Italian anisette liquor. A few years later I was to be seen there frequently, sometimes when I didn’t even know it.

After Cal Berkeley Memoli came into my life when I got involved with producing a play in San Francisco. I later wrote:

I approached Joe Memoli and he was extremely interested in my ideas of a musical repertory theater in San Francisco. He indicated that he would be coming into some serious money in the near future and that I should pursue it. He sent his attorney, Preston Erickson, to have a look at it (and bless the deal), and Don and Anne, his friends who developed the Cannery (without giving me credit) had a look as well. I started talking to Art Conrad and other talents I had worked with on “Out of Order” about the idea and they were keen as could be, of course. Wow! A repertory musical theater. Great! I paid Joe back his investment in about eight weeks and he was thrilled. “Hey, let’s find another one,” he said magnanimously.

I bussed across the bridge often to schmooze Memoli about the project, and he told me he wouldn’t be ready to think about finance for some months in the future. So I needed an interim job — or a project. I was invited to co-produce a show in L.A. and so:

“Out of Order” lasted for about four months, almost every performance sold out. It had to close as a number of the performers had other engagements and it was not so profitable that it was worth recasting. Also the theater lessees, Tom Sternberg (later to be a movie producer with Francis Ford Coppola) and his partner were demanding hugely increased rents. In the last week, John Storace did a runner (he wanted more pay!) and I had to don a whole lot of padding to take over his roles, including Big Daddy in the Tennessee Williams sketch.

One night a semi-sleazy Hollywood promoter/agent type named Hal Martin saw the show and asked to see Barry and me. He was co-producing a musical revue in Hollywood and was looking for investment partners. The show was “Parade,” Jerry Herman’s first show, which had a 95-performance run a year previously at the Players Theater in New York with Dody Goodman and Charles Nelson Reilly.

The original producer was Larry Kasha, a former stage manager, (“L’I Abner”) who would be directing this production. Joe, Barry and I went down to LA to meet him and Hal Martin and discuss the show. The cast had been set, and quite a stellar one it was. Carole Cook, Michelle Lee, Don Chastain, Tucker Smith and Lee Goodman, all solid musical performers with regular if not starring film and television careers. The theater was the Hollywood Center Theater, a rather sleazy, run down 500 seater on Santa Monica Blvd. in Hollywood.

On our arrival in LA, Joe and I, without Barry, went to dinner at the famed Barney’s Beanery, in those days a grubby thin long room with wooden booths, checked linoleum tablecloths, and a huge inventory of beers from around the world. Joe had an altercation with another patron. Some pushing ensued, and I watched in horror as Joe let loose with a right cross which decked the guy. He got up. Joe’s uppercut floored him for the count. Joe threw some notes on the table and dragged me out before the cops could arrive. It was the closest I’d ever been to a fist fight. Joe was proud of his achievement. I was somewhat horrified.

Joe agreed to put in the required finance for the show and I signed on as stage manager. I got Dave Colyer to join me and we split duties on lights, sound and stage management. Dave and I took a small apartment at the somewhat sleazy Hollywood Center Motel next to the theater.

The show closed with a total loss of Joe’s money. He was most gracious about it. “Hey, we had a big hit with ‘Out of Order,'” he said. “Let’s remember that one!”

Back in San Francisco, I took a small apartment out near the Mint on Market Street. It was a typical San Francisco craftsman-type apartment with wood everywhere and little warmth, but it was great to be on my own. I hustled up a few jobs in clubs and small theaters. I tried unsuccessfully to get work at the Hungry I, the famous San Francisco nightspot, but I did manage to get in to see Mort Sahl, Nichols and May and Woody Allen.

During this time I actually ran the lights and follow spots in a strip club on Broadway where the women were big, bored, blonde and Scandinavian and the drunks plentiful and smelly.

I found myself getting on buses rather frequently and crossing the Bay Bridge headed towards Jack London Square and Joe Memoli’s restaurant. Joe had a regular cast of Oakland characters in the joint most nights. He wouldn’t listen when I volunteered to help out in the kitchen. “You’re in the theater now,” he said, as if that was some sort of elevated position that precluded getting one’s hands dirty

I’d help myself to a bite from the kitchen. Joe would ply me with anisette liquor. We’d smoke, putting out our cigarettes in the Golden Gate Casino ashtrays he had on every table.

One night, none of the regular guys were in the upstairs part of the restaurant. I was told they were downstairs in the basement and I trotted down to find out what was going on. Joe seemed a little surprised when I came into the low-ceilinged long room. There were six or seven men, most of whom I knew by sight, gathered around a table in the center, and they were playing with bits of paper. On closer observation I noticed that dollar bills had been bleached out so they were almost white.

“Hey, there’s a great idea,” I yelped. “Bleach out dollar bills and print $100s on top of them.” Nobody laughed. “You’re a riot, kid,” said one of them named Smitty, dryly.

One evening a few months later I had returned to my apartment near the Mint. There were three Oakland policemen awaiting me, and I was requested to take a short journey in their police car. They wouldn’t tell me what it was about, nor would they listen to my pleas of exhaustion. We drove over the Bay Bridge to Oakland in silence.

After a short wait at the Oakland police station a detective questioned me: “Why were you at Joe Memoli’s restaurant 21 times in the past three months?” 

“Gosh was I?” said I. “It didn’t seem that often. I was visiting my friend Joe and” (I fibbed) “helping out in the kitchen.” (I didn’t want to tell them I was not permitted to cook and I didn’t think talking about a musical repertory theatre at the old Globe Chinese Theater would interest them.) “Why?”

 “We’ve just arrested him as the leader of the biggest counterfeit ring ever broken in the State of California.” My mind flashed to those bleached out dollar bills, and Smitty’s acerbic reaction to my suggestion about printing $100s on them. In fact, that’s not what they were doing. They were printing $20s on stolen paper stock and aging them in washing machines at the laundry of Alameda County College. Police also recovered hundreds of fake $1 gold pieces — replicas of those which commemorated the 1904-05 Lewis and Clark Exposition at Portland, Oregon. They had been coined in Mexico.

Needless to say, I was sent home that night as my honest face required no polygraph. The fact that Memoli’s had been staked out for the previous five months was rather a shock! Did he really intend to finance our theater with counterfeit money?

Joe got four years at San Quentin where he was assigned to the laundry room, rather than to the kitchen where he would have been much more appropriate.

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